Stephen Starr has built his restaurant empire - comprising 15 at current count, in three cities - into a brand.
For his next trick, Starr is extending the brand beyond pods and Buddhas into off-premises catering.
Starr Events creates menus around the food from Starr restaurants, such as lobster mac and cheese from Continental Mid-town, Kobe beef sliders from Barclay Prime, and sushi from Morimoto.
"It's part of the natural evolution of the brand," said Starr, who also is working on hotels in Philadelphia and New York.
It's not new for restaurateurs to expand their reach into catering, where the day's customer counts and staffing needs are predictable.
Libre Management, whose restaurants include Cuba Libre in Old City and Atlantic City, bought into the caterer Max & Me five years ago, and took control two years ago.
Co-owner Barry Gutin said Max & Me, which has its own executive chef and a sales staff of 11, stages 600 events a year at off-site locations, including the National Constitution Center and the Independence Visitor Center, where it has exclusivity. Next year, counting business booked at the new Please Touch Museum, Max & Me revenue is expected to rival that generated by the restaurants, Gutin said.
To tap this new end of their business, most restaurateurs already have much of the necessary infrastructure, including prep kitchens, kitchen staff and waiters, and catering and banquet departments.
Off-premises work adds another layer. Deals must be cut with venues and, in turn, with event planners. For Starr, this is where Simon Powles comes in.
Starr found Powles in Chicago, where the British-born food-service manager ran day-to-day operations for Guckenheimer Enterprises Inc., an $80 million company that handles the food served at the headquarters of such companies as Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch. Before that, Powles was vice president of operations for Wolfgang Puck Catering & Events.
"My goal is to become a premiere provider in the city, and to reinvent the event, if you will," said Powles, who works with a staff of six out of Starr's offices next to the Continental in Old City. Until a catering kitchen can be built, food is coming out of two closed Starr restaurants - the former Blue Angel/Angelina at 706 Chestnut St. and the former Washington Square on Washington Square.
One challenge in pulling signature dishes from restaurant menus is maintaining quality. "You can't compromise their integrity," Powles said. This can be a challenge at some venues that don't allow open flames. Such a restriction would exclude such dishes as the calamari salad from Continental.
Starr Events did a trial run in February, sending a half-dozen dishes to the black-tie preview party for the Philadelphia Auto Show at the Convention Center. Soon after, the caterer won its first exclusive agreement with the Hub for its meeting spaces at CityView, in Center City, and the Cira Centre, in University City.
Starr recently catered an event for the Professional Convention Management Association at the Hub at the Cira Centre. And Starr said he plans to seek out catering arrangements at pro sports venues.
Meryl Snow, co-owner of Feastivities, one of the region's larger caterers, said she was not concerned about Starr as a competitor. "I always think competition is a good thing, because it keeps us on our game," said Snow, who has been in the business for 20 years.
Snow said the Philadelphia market was known as competitive, but "if you know us, we're all friends," she said.
"It's healthy competition," said Andrew Ziobrio, senior vice president of museums and cultural centers for Restaurant Associates, which has contracts at the Art Museum and Kimmel Center. "They're going to raise the bar . . . and rejuvenate the attention to catering in general."
Kathy DeLuca of Events Plus Inc., an event planner in Collingswood and treasurer of the International Special Events Society, acknowledges that the post-2001 economy has slowed business but "there's always a need for good, creative off-sites."
Truffled Mushroom Bruschetta
Makes 40 pieces
1 pound each: white button, crimini, shiitake and hen-
4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
5 medium shallots, diced
4 ounces truffle butter
1 ounce fresh thyme leaves, about 1/4 cup
2 loaves crusty French bread
8 ounces Italian truffle cheese
Extra virgin olive oil
Rinse and dry the mushrooms to remove any dirt.
Cut the mushrooms into 1/4-inch dice and set aside.
In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil medium-hot. Add half the shallots; sweat for 30 seconds.
Add half the mushrooms and a pinch of salt to help extract moisture. When the liquid starts to evaporate add half the truffle butter and thyme leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning, as desired. Remove from the heat.
Repeat with the remaining half of ingredients.
Meanwhile, heat the broiler. Cut the bread into ¼-inch slices (about 20 center-cut slices per loaf). Put slices in a single layer on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and toast under the broiler. Spread the mushroom mixture on the toasts. Sprinkle grated truffle cheese on each. Return to broiler until cheese is melted and golden brown.
Repeat with remaining bread, duxelles (mushroom mixture) and cheese.
Per piece: 105 calories, 4 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 0.7 gram sugar, 6 grams fat, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 134 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Lobster Mac and Cheese
Makes about 8 servings
4 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup lobster demi-glace (see note)
1 pint (2 cups) heavy cream
5 cups orzo pasta, cooked
3 tablespoons minced chives
10 to 12 ounces steamed lobster meat, chopped
1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese
1/2 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup panko crumbs, toasted
In a bowl, combine the cream cheese, demi-glace, and heavy cream; blend smooth. Cook the orzo; drain and add with the chives, lobster, fontina, Gruyere, salt and pepper.
Divide among individual casseroles. Sprinkle crumbs over each. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and browned.
Demi-glace is a stock reduction. Reduce homemade stock from 1 cup to about 1/4 cup. Prepared demi-glaces may be found in gourmet food markets.
Per serving: 784 calories, 30 grams protein, 87 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 35 grams fat, 142 milligrams cholesterol, 344 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.